- Historic Sites
The bizarre career of “The Turk,” an ingenious mechanical chess player that defeated Frederick the Great, George III, and Napoleon (whom it caught cheating) and nearly fooled all America
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
In 1809, Napoleon seized Castle Schönbrunn, where Maelzel, as chief “mechanician” to the court, was staying, as his headquarters for the Battle of Wagram. According to one account, the Turk conquered the conqueror in their first game, but during the revanche Napoleon decided to see how the automaton acted under stress. He made a false move, a provocation the Turk acknowledged by rapping the table, shaking his head, and replacing the piece. Napoleon made the same move a second time, with the same result. The third time, the Turk lashed out and swept all his opponent’s chessmen to the floor. Napoleon murmured, “ C’est juste ,” and went on to lose by the rules.
Eugène de Beauharnais, the emperor’s stepson, insisted on purchasing the Turk from its proprietor for thirty thousand francs, and Maelzel accepted. He had to wait until 1817 before he could buy it back again—on convenient credit terms that allowed him to stretch out the payments for several years. He found it hard to meet even these generous terms, however, and when in 1825 the executors of the Beauharnais estate sent process servers after him, he hastily gathered the Turk and the rest of his company together and took ship for New York, just one jump ahead of the law. With a new set of clothes, a rakish feather in his turban, a little oil in the machinery, and a voice I)Ox in his innards, the Turk was ready to take on alf comers in the New World.
What the challengers didn’t know was that the clatter of the Turk’s internal contrivances was merely a blind. When Mael/el started the machinery the automaton’s genie, an attractive and nimble Frenchwoman ingeniously concealed behind the machinery in the chest throughout the examination, slid into the main compartment on a tiny stool mounted on rails. There she lighted a candle and prepared for the game by setting up a portable chessboard and arranging the pantograph equipment that moved the Turk’s arms. The chest was the perfect counterpart of a magician’s trick-table; it could accommodate even a tall person with reasonable comfort once the doors were closed. During the public viewing, however, the lady raced through a complicated set of calisthenics to escape detection—gliding through sliding partitions on casters, even shifting the machinery, all of which was movable. The construction of the chest virtually guaranteed invisibility, in case of a sudden hitch in the routine, a set of prearranged signals told Maelzel to stop before any embarrassing disclosures could be made.
Maelzel’s first choice for the New York debut had been an Alsatian chess tramp named William Schlumberger, whom he had met in Paris. There the Alsatian played day and night at the Café de la Régence, the smoky, crowded, mirror-lined mccca of chess players on the Rue St. Honoré, and earned a few francs for board and lodging by teaching the game. Schlumberger agreed to join the Turk in New York as soon as Maelzel could afford to send over the money for passage. Meanwhile, the Frenchwoman, whose chess wouldn’t have qualified her as a bus boy at the Café de la Régence, embarked with the com pany at Le Havre on the packet ship Howard on December 20, 1825: and during the month and-a-half voyage to New York and the two-and a-hall-month delay before the show opened, she was tutored by Maelzel on how to play chess in a box.
From her vantage point in the main compartment of the chest she had a view of the underside of the Turk’s chessboard. The squares were numbered beneath from 1 to 64, with a lever and a metal disc attached to the bottom of each square. The Turk’s chessmen were magnetized, and when a piece was moved 1'roni a square on the surface, the disc under it descended on its lever. The operator waited for a disc to rise under another square and then duplicated her opponent’s move on a second, scale-model chessboard at which she played. This board had pegged chessmen; in addition, each of its sixty-four squares had a hole. When it was the Turk’s move, she lifted from a holder at the side of her board the end of a metal rod that extended through the figure’s left arm to his gloved hand, and the Turk’s arm simultaneously left the cushion. When the point of the rod was inserted into one of the sixty-four holes of the operator’s board, the Turk’s hand hovered over the corresponding piece on his board above. A twist of the rod to the left dosed his fingers around it, and the Turk’s man swung to the new position. A twist of the rod to the right made the fingers release the piece in the correct square. The operator then guided the Turk’s arm to its resting position. Other mechanisms controlled the right hand (which rapped on the table when the opponent made a mistake), the head-shaking, the eyerollinsi, and the voice boomini> “ Échec! ”